Good reads curated by Max
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If this is your first time receiving the Weekend Reader: This is my weekly collection of ideas that matter and trends that are shaping culture today.  This isn't a hot-off-the-press scramble to share the latest headlines. It is a reflection of what I'm reading and have found valuable; a broader, wide-ranging look at the forces, ideas, and people changing the way we live today. 
- Maxwell Anderson 
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Driverless Cars Will Be Here Sooner Than You Think

Later this year, Tesla Model S owners will enter the world of magic. Tesla CEO and founder Elon Musk announced a software update that will enable the vehicle to enter autopilot mode, to drive itself on major highways. The cars will also have and an "autosummoning" feature where the owner can click a button and have the Tesla automatically drive itself from it's garage or parking spot to come pick up the owner where she is.

This is on top of Tesla's already unbelievable "insane" mode on the P85D model. If you haven't seen the test drive video, it's well worth three minutes of your time.
"Insane mode" looks undeniably fun. But it's changing the driving experience. You push a button and the computer augments your driving with extra torque. In the future, you may not get to drive at all. Elon Musk has gone so far as speculate that, "In the distant future, [legislators] may outlaw driven cars because they're too dangerous."

They'll be here sooner than you think, and they may disrupt things more than we can imagine. Check out these five important articles on the present state and future of autonomous cars and the economic, social, and ethical questions they raise. 

Reader MVP this week is Ben Davis who gave lots of great resources, not all of which could I share. Also I had a great phone interview with self-driving car expert Alain Kornhauser of Princeton. Brilliant guy. Hope to share that conversation by podcast in the next week. 

Let me know if any of you would like  to talk further about the future of self-driving cars. 

Read widely, read wisely.

1.7 Million Miles and Counting

The View from the Front Seat of the Google Self-Driving Car 
by Chris Urmson, Director of Google's Self-Driving Car Program, in Backchannel
Google has quietly been testing autonomously driven cars for 6 years on America's roads. Their fleet of 20+ robot cars (and safety "drivers") have driven more than 1.7 million miles and are adding 10,000 per week. Over the course of time Google's cars have been involved in 11 minor accidents - "light damage, no injuries." And, according to Urmson, not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident. This article shares what Google has learned about their own technology and about how humans drive, in an attempt to reduce the 33,000 traffic fatalities in the U.S. every year. 

Miles to Go

by Robert Sorokanich for Gizmodo
Despite the impressive scale of Google's testing, the car still isn't ready to be driven by itself in all conditions. It hasn't been tested in weather. It can't perceive a pothole. It's no good off-road in unmapped areas or in construction zones with odd signage. Oh, and they also don't work outside of Mountain View, CA.

Google's design relies on an ultra-detailed 3D mapping of the driving environment that measures things as precise as the height of the curb next to the intersection. Google has mapped 2,000 of these miles. They would need to map 4,000,000 of U.S. roads to make the cars effective nationally. The MIT article is really interesting on this (Thanks Ben!).

There's a lot of work to be done. But who knew the progress they'd already made? Urmson hopes to have the Google car street-ready within five years. And he's not alone. Volvo has promised that by 2020, partly thanks to autonomous tech, it will completely eliminate crash-related deaths in it's cars.


Q: Can you guess what is the most common job in 29 states?
A: Truck driver. 

So what happens if and when 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the U.S. are replaced with self-driving trucks? Truck drivers make on average $40K a year, which puts them right near the median of married households. So these are good jobs and they don't require a college degree. But Daimler has now already created a self-driving semi.

So are all those jobs going away?
My guess: Not any time soon.

In the past week I've spoken with Alain Kornhauser, the self-driving car guru at Princeton, and with the owner of a trucking company about this. They both made the same point - truck drivers do a whole lot more than keep the truck between the white lines - loading, unloading, managing the haul. We'll not see the elimination of these jobs anytime in the near future. Kornhauser argues that for the foreseeable future drivers will be "less dead, less tired and make more money" so they should celebrate the advent of trucks that could assist them with the driving. 


Do You Kill The Fat Man on Purpose or Let the Family of Five Die by Doing Nothing?
by Tanay Jaipuria on Medium

A trolley is heading down a track towards five people. The five are a family and they are stuck on the track and unable to move. If the trolley hits them, they will die. "You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you — the only way for you to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five people. Should you do it?" 

This classic situation was taught to me in a college course on ethics to illustrate the difference between utilitarian ethics (kill the one to save the five) versus kantian ("only act in such way that you would will that is should become a universal law.") 

Today we can each make our own choices of how to respond. In the future, we may have to program those choices for everyone. A self-driving car may need to choose between hitting 5 people or swerving and "deciding" to hit only 1. But what if that 1 is a child and the 5 are all old men? What if the 1 is a Nobel Prize winner? Should there be a distinction? Will this all have to be programmed ahead of time? 

Or might individual car owners get to program their own ethics into the cars?


Car Share

"It's a game-changer," says autonomous car researcher Alain L. Kornhauser of Princeton University. "What I think is going to happen is that nobody will own a car. … If you can get [mobility] by the drink, you won't buy the bottle."

The problem with buying the drink today, says Kornhauser, is that the labor cost of on-demand taxi service is enormous. As a result, we buy the bottle just in case we want a drink. Driverless cars change the whole equation."

I'm in NYC, where most people don't own cars anyway, because the mix of public transportation and taxis (and now Ubers) is sufficient for most people's mobility needs. It's easy to imagine other urban areas turning away from car ownership if the costs of shared autonomous vehicles are as low as they predict. In Austin, researchers modeled that each SAVs would reduce 11 other cars on the road!


Look Ma, No Hands! 

"I can't drive 55."
- Sammy Hagar

When I was six years old, my family was rear-ended in a major car accident. My mom has had TMJ issues ever since. When I was ten years old, on a holiday weekend, a drunk driver driver swerved into our lane and hit my family's car in a head-on collision. Thankfully, no one was hurt.  When I was nine years old, my friend Tyler was riding his bike, was hit by a car and killed. He was our pastor's son. It was the first time I'd ever known someone my age to die. 

Twenty years from now, with self-driving cars, it's possible that nothing like those events would ever happen again. 

That is the promise of a driverless future. Today there are 6 million auto accidents a year in the U.S. 33,000 of those accidents are fatal. And somewhere between 90-95% of them are the result of driver errors. Vehicle related accidents are the leading cause of death for all people ages 4-34. 

The Promise of Self-Driving Cars
Computer-driven cars wouldn't get distracted, wouldn't text while driving, and wouldn't get angry at the guy that cut them off. They could be programmed to stay in their lanes, to obey the laws, and to get you to your destination safely and predictably. They would be equipped with sensors to recognize traffic lights, other cars, and pedestrians in the street. Some argue that they would cut down commute times because they could go much faster on the highway without risk of accident. The obvious benefit is that they would free up drivers to do other things while getting where they need to go. Maybe we could finally have a chance to look at our phones!

Where are we today?
Many new model cars available today are already coming equipped with some computer-assisted driving features, ranging from parking assist to semi-autonomous lane driving. (You could say that cruise control is an old and simple form of self-driving).

Google's autonomous cars have driven 1.7 million miles in Mountain View. Earlier this year, auto supplier Delphi built a self-driving vehicle that completed a cross-country trip from California to NYC 99% without any human assistance. Companies from Audi to Uber are all working on their own self-driving vehicles. Mercedes may have the coolest looking one

We've already grown accustomed, though most of us aren't actively aware of it, to commercial jets being piloted mostly by computer, and we are safer because of it. When I read Unbroken, one of the most shocking things to me was the ridiculous number of U.S. planes that crashed in WW2, killing tens of thousands of troops in non-combat situations. Today, in large part thanks to computer-assistance, plane crashes are exceedingly rare - only 1 per every 2.4 million flights. They seem more common than they are because when one happens it gets a ton of press coverage. That is because each one affects so many passengers at once and because, since they are rare, they are by definition newsworthy. The truth is, air travel has proven far safer than car travel, probably by at least 10x

If it works for planes, why not get it going in cars? Well, Wall Street thinks we're on the way. Morgan Stanley predicts self-driving cars will be ubiquitous in 20 years. Goldman Sachs thinks cars without steering wheels will be pretty common by 2025. Google hopes to offer its self-driving car to the public in the next five years. 

All this prompts interesting questions. Will you need a license to "drive" a self-driving car? If not, could a child take one by herself, eliminating the need for mom to do soccer practice pickups? What will happen to the car insurance industry?

The big objections
It turns out that many of us are looking forward to this future. According to a BCG survey 55% of people would buy a semi-autonomous car and 44% would buy a fully autonomous car (many want it for cheaper insurance). Not everyone is excited about the future. The concerns range from the minor (e.g., a lot more people are going to get carsick) to the more major (e.g., Americans have an emotional attachment to owning and driving cars) that may not go away too easily.  In my opinion, here are the four more interesting concerns:.
  1. Automation Surprises and "Going Sour":  Aircraft crash researchers have studied why some planes still crash despite all the computer assistance. One of the reasons is "automation surprises," the name they give the phenomenon when the crew is surprised by the decisions made by the plane's computer that lead to miscommunication and misunderstanding. Going sour describes the kind of situation when you look back on it later and say, "What went wrong? they had all the information they needed!" Some pilots over-trust the computer when they shouldn't. Others wrest control back from the plane when they shouldn't because they fail to understand what the plane is doing. In the medium term era of self-driving cars, humans will still be able to take control back from the car. The question is whether they will do so wisely. 
  2. Job loss: While self-driving cars may not mean the end of the road for truck drivers, they certainly will be the end for taxi drivers and Uber drivers. And if Alain Kornhauser and others are right about self-driving cars leading to a world with 90% less car-ownership, there is going to be a major disruption to our car-centric economy in ways that are hard to fathom. The auto industry today produces 87 million cars a year. It's a $2 trillion business and in North America it employs more than 4 million people across manufacturers, sales, and repairs.  What if that was cut in half? (Half is a number I pull from the air as a thought experiment because presumably with car sharing the total cars needed plummets). This would be a massive economic dislocation. 
  1. Hacking your car. If cars are controlled by onboard computers it's reasonable to be concerned that those cars' computers might get hacked just like the "secure" computers of Sony, Apple, Target, Wall Street, and the U.S. government have been hacked. Imagine a hacker causing your car to suddenly stop on the highway, or turn right and drive into oncoming traffic.
  2. Ethics: The trolley problem is a good example of the inevitability of ethical decision-making in a world of increased automation. Critics ask, do you want Uber making the ethical decisions about how your car should drive? Alain Kornhauser had a good response to this when I talked to him. While he acknowledged that programming those choices is difficult, he imagined a governance board, possibly composed of both technologists and philosophers, ethicists, clergy even, who could together decide how the cars ought to be programmed when faced with situations involving possible human or environmental harm. After all would you rather have a human driver facing the situation and thinking about it for a fraction of a second in order to react, or would you rather have clear rules and principles decided ahead of time and programmed into a machine that can process millions of possibilities at once to determine the best way to achieve those principles in a given situation? Besides, Kornhauser offered, 33,000 people will die this year because we do not have this technology. If we could reduce that by 90%, it's worth whatever ethics we have to program into the machine, even if they aren't perfect. 
I was initially uncomfortable with the idea of a machine making these ethical choices, but the more I think about it the more comfortable I am, provided that the programming we use is wise, right, and courageous. Wise decisions are rarely made base on knee-jerk fight or flight reactions.

Yet I am concerned with an attitude that says any other ethical choice we make is justified so long as we save 90% more lives. You might argue that saving the 90% by any means is seeing the forest and not getting distracted by the trees. But I can't help but think every "tree" (person) has an intrinsic value that makes "the greatest good for the greatest number" a risky and potentially in some cases mistaken path to pursue. 

Self-driving cars are coming.
Your Uber will be here in five minutes.
Are you ready?

Worth Watching

The future could be fun. This video is of NASA's Modular Robotic Vehicle (MRV) that can be self-driving, and can also do stunt car-like maneuvers due to wheels with a 180 degree turn radius. This would make parallel parking a blast. 
NASA tests experimental vehicle which can spin on the spot
  • Last week's edition on drones is here
  • The week before, 6 Fashion Trends You Didn't See Coming is here
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